The Damned: 35 Years of Evil
by Erin Amar
The first glimpse I catch of Captain Sensible, legendary guitarist of punk rock icons The Damned, is from 15 feet away, nervously peeking out of the doorway of the band’s dressing room. “I don’t want to do it!” he mock-pleads with Damned drummer and tour manager Pinch, “Monty (OxyMoron – Damned keyboardist of the last 10 years) says he wants to do the press.”
It’s moments like this that strike fear into an interviewer’s heart. A flash of the future interview plays across my mind – one where all of my questions about the Damned’s early years fall apart under a well meant “Sorry, I wasn’t there. Anything else?” from OxyMoron, so I quickly find myself hollering to Sensible in my most chipper tones “Come on Captain, you can talk to me! I’m a very small woman, you don’t have to be afraid.” then find myself wondering “Why *I* am attempting to reassure this seminal punk rock figure of *my* non-threatening status?” After all, we’re talking about a band who practically invented punk rock AND goth, and who I’m now catching up with as they hit the road to celebrate 35 years of… evil.
Thankfully, the Captain soon cheerily acquiesces and minutes later I am being tailed by Sensible, OxyMoron, Rocker’s trusty videographer Andrew and a mysterious stranger (later revealed to be Wes Orshoski – co-director of “Lemmy, The Movie”, shooting the first day of his forthcoming Damned documentary) as we pop upstairs to the bar of Cambridge’s Middle East Restaurant for a chat about the band’s current tour, setting Elvis Costello on fire, and the very nature of punk rock.
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Rocker: So how did Damned Damned Damned and The Black Album get picked to be played on this 35th anniversary tour?
Captain Sensible: That’s a good question. I think we were wondering that when we were rehearsing, “Whose idea was it to do the two most difficult albums that we’ve got?” The first one, because it’s the most frenetic and manic, and the other one because it’s just so darn difficult!
Rocker: So there wasn’t a big band meeting where you went down the list?
Captain Sensible: No, because Damned, Damned, Damned is the one that started the UK punk movement in 1976-77. It’s the one that beat the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers and all these other people, and it’s supposedly quite an important album in punk terms. It’s a gnarled, rasping kind of noise, isn’t it, really? You listen to it and it’s not really what you’d call “produced”. It says ‘Produced by Nick Lowe’ on there, but all he did was buy us bottle after bottle of scrumpy cider, you know? That was his idea of production. He did nothing! You listen to the guitars, and they sound so gnarled and destroyed. If you listen to some of these other punk albums, the guitars sound pristine, they sound really, really like a great rock sound. But you listen to the first Damned album, and it’s disgusting noise – but gloriously so.
The other album, The Black Album, is the one that started – along with Joy Division and a couple of other bands – the goth movement. So I thought it was fair to do those two. I didn’t realize quite how difficult it would be, to get all those songs, though. A lot of them we’ve never played live before. The Black Album is really challenging musically and technically. I like my prog rock, don’t get me wrong, but I never wanted to play songs with so much structure and chord changes. Really! We were sitting in there going, “God, this is difficult, isn’t it?”
Monty OxyMoron: One of the problems with The Black Album is that almost everything is joined together, so instead of just learning one song, you have to learn a whole bunch of them, from one to the other. You have to think about what sounds you’re going to use, shifting, and that’s brought lots of change to the songs. It’s more difficult doing it that way rather than just playing one song.
Rocker: It struck me that 30 years ago The Damned came to the US and played Damned, Damned, Damned as well – but then you were the first UK punk band to tour the USA. Do you have any memories of that tour?
Captain Sensible: I remember distinctly playing The Rat club in Boston.
Rocker: You know, it’s closed now.
Captain Sensible: Is it? That’s a shame. People should understand the heritage and the culture, because The Rat club in Boston,… CBGB’s, that’s gone, the Marquee in London,… you never get these places back once you’ve knocked them down. It’s just so important.
I remember when we played The Rat club, not everyone there understood what we were doing. We had bags of attitude, we were a little bit gnarly, a little bit kind of South London, giving it large, we don’t care, that sort of thing. And the audience weren’t really with us, it has to be said. They weren’t cheering after each song… It was odd, a little ripple of applause,… so not much of a reaction. We prefer a bad reaction to no reaction, so we had a little chat onstage and said, “They’re not getting it,” and so we kind of goaded them a little. We ordered pizzas and had tables put on the stage, and between songs we would eat pizza and drink beer and say, “Did you check the football scores on Saturday, how did Chelsea do?” that sort of thing. Then that really got the audience, so they started chucking ice cubes out of their drinks at us, so we got a reaction, and we went home happy.
Rocker: What are the crowds like at your shows now?
Captain Sensible: In Britain, our audience is kind of split between young punksters, who want to get involved in the moshing and all that nonsense, and the older crowd, who we’ve known for years, and are kind of growing old disgracefully. They’re in there with the youngsters, aren’t they, giving them elbows and all that sorts of stuff. You couldn’t get me down there, to be quite honest.
Rocker: Hindsight can be so 20/20. We talk about punk rock now, but at the time it was evolving. did you have a clear idea that you were in a punk rock band?
Captain Sensible: When we started the band, Brian didn’t say, “I’m forming a punk rock band.” He never used the word ‘punk.’ We never used the word ‘punk.’ It was only after about three or four gigs, and the music papers started saying it was a punk rock thing. The first I’d ever heard of it was when I read it in the paper, I thought, “What do they mean, we’re a punk rock group?” Honestly, it’s not what we were doing. We were just doing what we wanted to hear, because there was nothing around at the time that we liked.
Rocker: I don’t know if you saw Lemmy the movie, but what you’re saying reminds me of how it blew my mind when he talked about how when he was a kid, there was no such thing as rock and roll yet.
Captain Sensible: It’s a great movie, and Lemmy’s a great subject. You’re never disappointed with Lemmy, because he lives the lifestyle. He’s not always taking drugs or drinking, but he’s always got a good one-liner, and he’s a surprisingly nice bloke. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say, I don’t want to spoil his image.
Rocker: Are you living the lifestyle? Are you The Damned all day and all night?
Captain Sensible: There used to be a time – I call them the ‘chaos years’ – when the Damned were fairly debauched, it has to be said. We did drink quite a lot, and we had a 24-hour club. We hardly ever went to sleep, and if you did go to sleep, and one of your comrades – your esteemed friends in the band – would empty ashtrays in your mouth, tie your shoelaces together, set you on fire…
Rocker: Were you set on fire?
Captain Sensible: I was set on fire by (Damned drummer) Rat Scabies. Nice guy, yeah? We set Elvis Costello on fire back on the tour bus once. I like to think that’s where he got that rasping vocal style from, because he had fag butts in his mouth.
Rocker: You just snuck up on Elvis Costello?
Captain Sensible: He was pissed on Pernod, it wasn’t difficult to sneak up on him.
Rocker: None of you have suffered lasting problems from being set on fire.
Captain Sensible: No, no. But I remember when they set me on fire in the pub, nobody would even chuck a beer over me to put me out. They just didn’t want to waste it! What a bunch of…
You know, At the end of each tour, we have a vote, don’t we, Monty, to see who is the most insane person. Who has lost the plot the most on that tour. I’ve won a couple of times, you’ve definitely won three or four times, and Dave’s won a couple of times.
Rocker: Monty, how did you become the winner?
Monty OxyMoron: Getting stressed out and having a complete freakout.
Captain Sensible: There was that time onstage in Manchester where you demanded your setlist back off the audience.
Monty OxyMoron: Oh yeah…
Captain Sensible: “I’m not playing another note until they get me my setlist back! No, I’m not going to do it! No! Come on, give me my setlist!”
Monty OxyMoron: That was a delayed reaction to all the equipment being stolen. That was just an added straw that broke the camel’s braid or whatever.
Rocker: Captain, what was your reason for being the winner?
Captain Sensible: I have been known to go berserk and stamp my feet.
Monty OxyMoron: You have to be careful when he dresses up as a schoolgirl, that’s when things get really out of hand.
Captain Sensible: I’ve got an alter ego called Susie Lollipop, and sometimes I put the dress on and the wig, and I get into character and I can’t get out of character. I can’t shift her. She’s stuck. There was one particular time in Japan when I couldn’t get her out of my brain, and I was taking internal flights in Japan wearing the schoolgirl’s uniform. It was kind of strange, to look back on it, which is why, these days, if I go out as Susie Lollipop, I try to get out of the costume and out of that frame of mind.
Monty Oxy Moron: Otherwise the dressing room gets demolished. She throws all the food everywhere…
Captain Sensible: She does, yeah.
Rocker: I would think Japan would be the perfect place to be stuck in a schoolgirl outfit.
Captain Sensible: Yeah. That’s the thing, in Japan, you’re not going to get a bunch of blokes going, “Oy, darling, who’s that with you, then, come on, you slag, more for the boys, I’ll tell you what…” You don’t get too much of that in Japan. People are much more polite. In Britain, you get bricks thrown at you, probably.
Rocker: And in Japan I bet nobody blinked an eye, did they?
Captain Sensible: No, I got away with it.
Rocker: Do you ever think what would have happened to you if there had there never been a Damned? Like, if you’d been kicked out of the band in ’78, where would you have landed?
Captain Sensible: No idea, no idea. I was so lucky myself, because punk came along at the right time for me. Before the Damned, I was in this band called Johnny Moped, and we’d just improvise and behave badly onstage. We’d all have our faces painted green and we were playing in dustbins on the stage – we were standing in dustbins – stuff like that. And all the other bands in Croydon, where I come from, they used to laugh at us and say, “You’ll never get anywhere, you’re an absolute crock of shit.” But all these bands that could play perfectly who thought they were primed for success, did nothing, And the most useless band in Croydon – us – actually cracked it. Isn’t that strange? I was in the right place at the right time.
Rocker: Is the band working on any new music right now?
Captain Sensible: It’s quality, not quantity, with the Damned. I’m sure we’ll make another record sometime. It’s nice to be a rudderless ship, not knowing what you’re going to be doing in six months’ time, let alone six days’ time. Actually, we’re doing a gig, probably, aren’t we? I’m just blundering through life and kind of enjoying it, it’s not a bad thing to do, is it, twanging a guitar for a living?
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